“For theatre is, in whatever revisionist, futurist, or self-dissolving form — or in the most proleptic desire to forget the theatre — a function of remembrance. Where memory is, theatre is.”—Herbert Blau, The Audience

"Ghost Light," a play developed by Tony Taccone and Jonathan Moscone at OSF

ASHLAND, ORE.:  “What, has this thing appear’d again tonight?” So Horatio asks at the beginning of Hamlet — an ironic remark to make in the theatre, an art form and a cultural space where hauntings take place before a new audience night after night. Every new production of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, is ghosted by past interpretations as well as by the specific memories of audience members who are returning for a second or third or fourth look. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a performance that occurs night after night cannot escape the coloring of previous performances, which can never be an exact replica or a precise repetition of an old interpretation.

By its very nature, every theater is haunted by past performances of famous actors and classic plays, which force the current performers and productions, whether they like it or not, to walk in the shadows of their predecessors. Even Shakespeare’s history plays were ghosted by the real-life events on which they were based as well as the actual kings, queens, dukes and princes whose destinies and former glories he had ruthlessly fictionalized for his own dramatic ends.

Tony Taccone’s play Ghost Light at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (where it runs through November 5) takes its title from an interesting practice — a single bare-bulb left burning in the middle of the stage all night. Some theatre people say that one reason for the ghost light is to keep a person walking into the backstage of a dark theatre from tripping over set pieces or accidentally walking off the edge of the stage. Back in Shakespeare’s times, candles were burned in theatres to scare away ghosts from old performances. In Taccone’s grief-stricken play about a director struggling to stage Hamlet — a middle-aged artist stuck in deep, conflicted mourning over his aborted relationship to his own father’s political legacy  — the image of the ghost light becomes a metaphor for a son’s unconscious desires to keep the story of his father alive and burning — his seething rage, though barely expressed and quite clearly unexamined, at the trauma and burden of losing his father so early in his childhood.

"Ghost Light," a play conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone at OSF

Appropriately enough, ghostly figures from the historical past, ghosts from dramatic literature, ghosts from private memories, and (this being the Digital Age) ghosts from cyberspace return again and again in Ghost Light. In various interviews, author Tony Taccone states that there are three major ghosts in the play: the ghost of George Moscone, the ghost of Harvey Milk and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. “They all collude and collide within the real and imagine and fantasy life of a character named Jon Moscone, who is really largely invented in terms of how he talks and how he behaves,” Taccone says.

Those three ghosts are, however, more figurative than literal in the play’s theatrical fanciful landscape. The political celebrity of his beloved father, whom the San Francisco community has taken to heart, haunts the restless character of Jon who barely knew his own father. An openly out gay man, Jon is haunted and disturbed by the gay-liberation mythology that has surrounds Milk, whose ghost has eclipsed Moscone’s public image in the American mind.  And Jon as a theatre director finds himself perturbed that he is unable to put his own personal stamp on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Henry Fuseli - Hamlet and his father's Ghost (...
Henry Fuseli - Hamlet and his father's Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard) | Image via Wikipedia

In the action of the play, Jon is continually haunted both in his dreams and in his waking life by “literal” ghosts that help construct our understanding of how the dilemmas Jon has confronted since the assassination of his mayoral father. The Boy, which pictures Jon as a teenager, might be seen as a gargoyle that refuses to leave the side of the coffin of a dead man. The Messenger, an African-American Spirit Guide who assists in transporting the souls of the recently deceased to the other side, might echo the fierce nurse/former drag queen Belize who bounces from place to place in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which Tony Taccone helped midwife into becoming the signature epic play of the 1990s.

As Ghost Light builds and detours into the supernatural, Jon experiences visions. Jon sees or imagines or fantasizes (whatever) a slew of actors portraying Hamlet’s father’s ghost in medieval armor, in spandex and as bunraku puppets. The Prison Guard, a family ghost who at one point shows up in the guise of Jon’s grandfather (who in real life worked as a prison guard in San Quention), retains aspects of the hauntings of Prior Walter’s ghostly ancestors in Tony Kushner’s play. Because of the disembodied and virtual nature of the Internet, cyber-ghosts like Loverboy have been recurring images in contemporary popular culture that incorporate emergent communication technologies in their narratives. In these popular fictions about cyberspace, the figure of the ghost dramatizes both an optimism that sees the liberating possibilities of disembodiment and a strong desire to create real connections between individuals who have never physically met.

Seen within the context of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions History Cycle, Ghost Light offers a whimsical, idiosyncratic and highly personal view of the social aftermath of the assassination of San Francisco mayor George Moscone. What makes this project peculiar is that it views Moscone’s historical legacy through the memories of his own son, the stage director Jonathan Moscone. What makes Ghost Light fantastical is that entire patches of the script are made up out of whole cloth. Adding a touch of hubris to this commissioned enterprise, Moscone is himself directing this piece of theatre in which he himself figures as a main character—even though its author, Taccone, says that the play is as much about his relationship to his own father.

Interested in a video preview of Ghost Light as well as video interviews of its creators? Click here.

Interested in my essay about why Harvey Milk eclipsed the legacy of George Moscone? Click here.

It remains an open question whether the act of directing a dream-laden play that amounts to a public exploration of a man’s private relationship to his own paternal lineage would also be a form of personal healing for Jonathan Moscone. The artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater since 2000, Moscone credits his father, who loved opera and musicals, for introducing him to the joys of theatre. George and his wife, Gina Bondanza, had four children. They tagged Jonathan along to see Oklahoma!, Evita, Bells Are Ringing and other Civic Light Opera shows at the Curran and Orpheum theaters in San Francisco. The first play Jonathan ever saw was Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. He also took in student-matinee shows at American Conservatory Theatre during the era of its founder, director William Ball.

In some essential way, however, Jonathan the kid did not truly know his own father as a man, as a politician or as a parent. Prior to becoming mayor of San Francisco in January 1976, George served in the California State Senate starting in 1966. Elected as the majority leader of the upper house, he spent most of his time in Sacramento, which is about two hours and 20 minutes away by car from San Francisco (an hour and 35 minutes without traffic). Moscone was largely a distant father for almost 10 years. Jonathan was 11 years old when his father ran for mayor in 1975, a decision that prompted him to return to San Francisco and live full-time with the family. Three years later—when Jonathan was 14 years old—George Moscone was gunned down and killed, along with Harvey Milk in San Francisco’s City Hall.

Grave of the late San Francisco mayor George Moscone

San Franciscans who met or knew his father—either fleetingly, more intimately or as a public figure—often feel the need to tell Jonathan their personal reactions or private connections to his father. “When I think of George Moscone,” Jonathan wrote in a 1999 first-person essay published in The Advocate, “I think of San Francisco. And politics. And death. But to think of him as my father requires some real imagination. Over the years since his death, I have learned of his legacy as a civil-rights leader who successfully pushed for passage of the nation’s first major gay rights legislation and as the first mayor in San Francisco’s history to open city hall’s doors to those outside the power structure—minorities, women, and gays and lesbians. But it is only recently that I have come to truly know him as a father and as a man.”

Four months before he wrote those words, in November 1998, Jonathan came out publicly as a gay man. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the deaths of his father and Milk; Jonathan was asked to speak on behalf of his family at a city-sponsored memorial held at an opera house in San Francisco. He spoke from his heart about his father’s death: “And with my father went the life of a child. That day in 1978 I saw my childhood and the youth of my brother and sisters vanish before our very eyes.”

In The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine, the Nathan Award–winning author and critic Marvin Carlson makes the point that “drama has always been centrally concerned not simply with the telling of stories but with the retelling of stories already known to its public.” That is certainly the case with the assassination of George Moscone and Harvery Milk, whose mythology is reassessed and reevaluated in Ghost Light. All artists working in any art form, of course, recycle or revisit the past in some shape, way or form, but the theater draws its strange and compelling power from the dramatization and living enactment of unknown histories and un-recovered memories that lie just below the surface of our collective memory. As Carlson states, “The need to rehearse and renegotiate the relationship with memory and the past is nowhere more specifically expressed in human culture than in theatrical performance.”

In Ghost Light, San Francisco history itself is a ghost machine, and every performance is a nightly haunting that serves to re-construct and resurrect the recent past through the vivid dreams and dim memories of a young witness who has grown up but held fast to the sorrowful pain of a paternal loss.

George Moscone and Harvey Milk
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